Kevin Spacey and the cult of image

The initial reaction to Spacey’s allegations show how the lines have been blurred between image and reality

Spacey’s coming out showed how willing people are to overlook misdeeds (Source: NBC/Universal)

The allegations that Kevin Spacey sexually harassed an underage Anthony Rapp sent the actor’s career into immediate jeopardy. After the story broke, Netflix announced that it was ending, then suspending production, on the hit show House of Cards. But if you saw some of the headlines when the news broke, some people chose to tell a different story instead.

Spacey issued his own statement on Twitter, blaming the incident on drunkenness, warning that more stories will arise, and coming out as a gay man in the process. Many saw his claims as attempts to deflect blame and clear himself of any guilt for his actions. But others saw his statement as a sensational headline, directing the focus not on the fact that he admitted to harassing an underage actor, but that he had come out of the closet, with outlets from ABC News to Reuters choosing to lead with that revelation and not the allegations against Spacey.

Most of those stories were later amended to put the allegations at the forefront, but only after many people saw through Spacey’s attempt to change the story. But the treatment of Spacey’s scandal wasn’t just a singular missed mark by media outlets, but a showcase of a significant problem when it comes to allegations of this nature against a beloved celebrity; we simply do not want to believe they are true.

When Harvey Weinstein’s years of assault and harassment became public, the general reaction was one of justified disgust and anger at these actions. Weinstein’s career was effectively over within days, and many felt that we had turned the page on talking about sexual harassment. People could suddenly come forward, talk about their experiences, and experience some sort of justice, whether it be legally or in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, Weinstein is the exception, not the rule.

Besides Weinstein, some other high-profile celebrities accused of sexual harassment and physical assault include Spacey, Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes. Of those men, Ailes is the only one who saw a fall as swift as Weinstein’s. Cosby’s allegations took years to gain traction in the mainstream before he was charged. O’Reilly was easily able to start a new radio show after his firing from Fox News. Depp has seen virtually no backlash from the allegations he abused Amber Heard. And Donald Trump won the presidency in spite of the dozens of allegations that came out against him right before the election.

Ailes and Weinstein were, arguably, not public figures before their scandals. They weren’t the stars of beloved TV shows or outspoken advocates. They were executives, people behind the scenes that the public could project a negative image on. It’s easy to believe that Harvey Weinstein is a terrible person because that’s the only light we’ve seen him in. But we don’t use that same standard towards people who have an established persona. The reason that the Bill Cosby allegations took so long to be taken seriously was because no one wanted to believe them. Cosby was America’s Dad, someone who brought back memories of classic TV moments. The idea that he could drug and rape women once sounded outlandish, and still does to many people, because we can’t make the connection between Cosby’s image and his reality.

This pattern plays out in the cases of many high-profile men, where their image dominates the conversation, and not the allegations. Johnny Depp has a reputation as one of the finest actors of our time, so it’s easy to write off Heard’s allegations as gold-digging, not because we can prove she’s lying, but because he’s Johnny Depp. Many refused to believe the allegations made against former President George H.W. Bush, because they couldn’t view a 93-year old in a wheelchair as someone who could act inappropriate. This has gone as far as supporters of Donald Trump denying that the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape or his harassment allegations even happened. Many view Trump as an extreme case, but what makes someone under Trump’s Cult of Personality different from someone who has been charmed by Kevin Spacey for years and views these allegations as not a big deal?

This, of course, is nothing new. The public has been more than forgiving towards celebrity misdeeds for decades. It got O.J. Simpson through a murder trial and is probably why Sean Penn still has a career. But there lies the problem with how we are going about discussing sexual assault nowadays. Practically everyone can say that sexual harassment and assault is wrong and anyone who does it should be punished. But when we start attaching names and faces to sexual assault, we become hesitant, wanting to know what kind of person the accuser and the accused are, rather than trying to figure out what actually happened. It’s still hard to believe that a ‘good guy’ could rape someone. And while it would be easy write it off as just a problem with ‘celebrity’, it still is something that we could find ourselves dealing with in everyday life. Even if someone believes the allegations against Spacey, there’s no telling how they would react if accusations were made against a co-worker, a friend, or a family member.

The progress made since the Weinstein scandal is undeniable, and has the potential to lead us on a positive path when it comes to talking about sexual assault. The fact that we know about Spacey’s misdeeds is proof of that. But we need to know how to talk about the people involved, regardless of what our earlier feelings are. Kevin Spacey coming out could have been significant, showcasing queer diversity in Hollywood. But the story is that he harassed a teenager and admitted there are more stories like that to come. No Academy Award or House of Cards performance or personal revelation should be enough to distract us from that. If we want to make society a better place for victims of sexual assault to speak up, then we need to make sure that no one, regardless of their status or image, can get away with it.

Izzy Rodriguez is a writer and student at Rice University. You can follow Izzy for more commentary on politics and pop culture on Twitter @IzzyRxdriguez.